Before it is possible to describe the links between popular culture and Pop Art, we need to define them separately; otherwise any proposed relationship of the two subjects will dissolve amorphously. Recently the term Pop Art has been applied to comic strips and to paintings taken from them; to both commercial and underground movies; to architecture and to fashion. As I shall argue that Pop Art is more than a fashion, more than an expendable movement before Op Art came along and wiped it out, it is necessary to firm up our definitions.
The aesthetics of twentieth-century art, or much of it, derive from the eighteenthcentury separation of the arts from one another. Art was defined as, strictly, pure painting, sculpture, architecture, music or poetry and nothing but these five media could be properly classified as fine art. This act of tight discrimination was powerfully reinforced in the succeeding centuries. Nineteenth-century Aestheticism sought the pure centre of each art in isolation from the others and twentieth-century formal theories of art assumed a universal equilibrium that could be reached by optimum arrangements of form and colour. This view of the arts as fundamentally self-referring entities has been, of course, amazingly fruitful, but the continued authority of art as pure visibility, to the exclusion of other kinds of meaning, is now in doubt. No sooner were the arts purified by eighteenth-century definitions than the supporters of pure fine art declared their differences from the popular audience which was not committed to high art. Fielding, Goldsmith and Dr. Johnson all recorded their alarm at the taste for realism and sensationalism displayed by the gross new public for novels and plays. Anxieties were expressed about the effects of novels on young ladies which are very like the fears (and fantasies) of parents and teachers in the nineteen-fifties about the effect of horror comics on children and about the effect of violence on TV in the sixties. Connections exist between fine and popular art, but they are not numerous: Hogarth worked for a socially differentiated public, with paintings intended for an affluent and sophisticated audience and prints aimed at a mass audience. Goya drew on English political prints for his execution picture, May 3, 1808. Daumier alternated between the directed messages of his political cartoons and the autonomous paintings. Toulouse-Lautrec's posters were pasted on kiosks in the streets of Paris. Despite such individual reconciliations of fine and popular art, of elite artist and public taste, the two taste groups have remained antagonists.
As the popular arts became increasingly mechanized and progressively more abundant, elite resistance hardened correspondingly. Popular culture can be defined as the sum of the arts designed for simultaneous consumption by a numerically large audience. Thus, there is a similarity in distribution and consumption between prints and magazines, movies, records, radio, TV, and industrial and interior design. Popular culture originates in urban centres and is distributed on the basis of mass production. It is not like folk art which, in theory at least, is hand-crafted by the same group by which it will be consumed. The consumption of popular culture is basically a social experience, providing information derived from and contributing to our statistically normal roles in society. It is a network of messages and objects that we share with others.
Popular culture is influential as it transmits prompt and extensive news, in visual, verbal and mixed forms, about style changes that will affect the appearance of our environment or about political and military events that will put our accepted morality under new pressures. There is a subtle and pervasive, but only half-described, feedback from the public to the mass media and back to the public in its role as audience. The media have expanded steadily since the eighteenth century, without a break or major diversion. The period after World War II was Edenic for the consumer of popular culture; technical improvements in colour photography in magazines, expansion of scale in the big screens of the cinema, and the successful addition of new media (long-playing records and television). In addition, cross-references between media increased, so that public communication transcended its status of "relaxation" (the old rationalization for reading detective stories) or invisible service (such as providing essential political and national news).
It is necessary to refer to the Canadian Roman Catholic essayist Marshall McLuhan at this point. He celebrates pop culture, in his way, but believes that the arrival of a new medium consigns prior media to obsolescence. It is true that each new channel of communication has its effect on the existing ones, but so far the effect has been cumulative and expansive. The number of possibilities and combinations increases with each new channel, whereas McLuhan assumes a kind of steady state of a number of messages which cannot be exceeded. Consider the relation of movies and TV. At first movies patronized the tiny screen and the low definition image in asides in films; then movies began to compete with TV by expanding into large screens (CinemaScope and Cinerama, for instance) and by using higher definition film stock (for example, Vista Vision). (Three-dimensional movies were resurrected but did not get out of the experimental stage.) Today TV shows old movies (more than two years old) continually and in so doing has created a new kind of Film Society audience of TV-trained movie-goers. In addition to making TV films, Hollywood is making sexier and tougher films, leaving the delta of Good Family Entertainment to TV largely. Movies, now, are more diversified and aimed at more specialized audiences, which is not what McLuhan's theory (which would expect the extinction of the movie) requires. After World War II the critical study of pop culture developed in ways that surpassed in sophistication and complexity earlier discussions of the mass media. To Marxists, pop culture was what the bosses doped the people with and to Freudians it was primal fantasy's latest disguise, with a vagina dentata in every crocodile snapping in the cave under the mad doctor's laboratory. The new research was done by American sociologists who treated mass communications objectively, as data with a measurable effect on our own lives. There maybe an analogy here with the post-war move among historians away from heroes and dominant figures to the study of crowds. Previously the past had been discussed in terms of generals' decisions, monarchs' reigns and mistresses' fortunes, with the rest of the world serving as an anonymous backing. The practice of treating history as a star system was not really subverted by debunking portraits of the great, a la Lytton Strachey, which preserved, though ironically, the old ratio of hero and crown. The real change came with the study of population and communities. Demography is giving to normal populations something of the legibility of contour that biography confers on individuals. The democratization of history (like the sociological study of mass communications) leads to an increase of complexity in the material to be studied, making it bulge inconveniently beyond the classical scope of inquiry.
In the post-war period an uncoordinated but consistent view of art developed, more in line with history and sociology than with traditional art criticism and aesthetics. In London and New York artists then in their twenties or early thirties revealed a new sensitivity to the presence of images from mass communications and to objects from mass production assimilable within the work of art. Oyvind Fahlstrom, writing about another artist, Robert Rauschenberg, described the artist as "part of the density of an uncensored continuum that neither begins nor ends with any action of his." Instead of the notion of painting as technically pure, organized as a nest of internal correspondences, Fahlstrom proposed the work of art as a partial sample of the world's continuous relationships. It follows that works demonstrating such principles would involve a change in our concept of artistic unity; art as a rendezvous of objects and images from disparate sources, rather than as an inevitably aligned set-up. The work of art can be considered as a conglomerate, no one part of which need be causally related to other parts; the cluster is enough. Eduardo Paolozzi's work from the early fifties to date has investigated the flow of random forms and the emergence of connectivity within scatter.
Accompanying the view of art as a sample from a continuum is a lack of interest in the idea of the masterpiece, a staple of earlier theories of art. In place of the feeling of awe at a great man's greatest moment, artists and critics became more interested in representative and typical works. The whole life of the man, rather than his record-breaking peak, is what was interesting. Related to this shift of emphasis was a reduction in the high evaluation of permanence. Art was separated from its supposed function as a symbol of eternity, as an enemy of time, and accepted as a product of time and place. Its specificity, its historical identity, was its value, not its timelessness. Parallel to this anti-idealist view of art an aesthetics of expendable art was developed in England in the fifties. Its purpose was to handle the ephemeral popular arts which were no longer, it was speculated, different in kind from the art called "fine."
As popular culture became conspicuous after World War II, as history and sociology studied the neglected mass of the past and the neglected messages of the present, art was being changed, too. It is not, as ultimatistic writers have it, that the emergence of a new style obliterates its predecessors; what happens is that everything changes but the past's continuity with the present is not violated. As an alternative to an aesthetic that isolated visual art from life and from the other arts, there emerged a new willingness to treat our whole culture as if it were art. This attitude opposed the elite, idealist and purist elements in eighteenth- to twentieth-century art theory. It was recognized in London for what it was ten years ago, a move towards an anthropological view of our own society. Anthropologists define culture as all of a society. This is a drastic foreshortening of a very complex issue in anthropology, but to those of us brought up on narrow and reductive theories of art, anthropology offered a formulation about art as more than a treasury of precious items. It was a two-way process: the mass media were entering the work of art and the whole environment was being regarded, reciprocally, by the artists as art, too.
Younger artists in London and New York did not view pop culture as relaxation, but as an on-going part of their lives. They felt no pressure to give up the culture they had grown up in (comics, pop music, movies). Their art was not the consequence of renunciation but of incorporation. Richard Hamilton has referred, accurately, to his work of the period as "built up of quotations." The references are not to the Apollo Belvedere or the Farnese Hercules, but to Charlton Heston as Moses, The Weapon Shops of Isher Vikki Dougan. If these references are now obscure, it doesn't matter any more than the exact identity of the bad poets in Pope's Dunciad matter. They can be identified but, in any case, the twentieth-century experience of overlapping and clustered sign-systems is Hamilton's organizing principle, which we can all recognize.
Pop Art is neither abstract nor realistic, though it has contacts in both directions. Peter Blake and Malcolm Morley, for instance, both British artists, have moved from Pop Art to a photograph-based realism. In New York, on the other hand, an artist like Roy Lichtenstein has been moving in the direction of abstract art, not only by parodistic references to its old-fashioned geometric style, but by the formality of his own arrangements. The core of Pop Art, however, is at neither frontier; it is, essentially, an art about signs and sign-systems. Realism is, to offer a minimal definition, concerned with the artist's perception of objects in space and their translation into iconic, or faithful, signs. However, Pop Art deals with material that already exists as signs: photographs, brand goods, comics, that is to say, with pre-coded material. The subject matter of Pop Art, at one level, is known to the spectator in advance of seeing the use the artist makes of it. Andy Warhol's Campbell soup cans, Roy Lichtenstein's comic strips, are known, either by name, or by type, and their source remains legible in the work of art. )"at happens when an artist uses a known source in popular culture in his art is rather complex. The subject of the work of art is doubled: if Roy Lichtenstein or Paolozzi uses Mickey Mouse in his work, Mickey is not the sole subject. The original sign-system of which Mickey is a part is also present as subject. The communication system of the twentieth century is, in a special sense, Pop Art's subject. Marilyn Monroe, as used by Andy Warhol and Hamilton, is obviously referred to in both men's art, but in addition, other forms of communication are referred to as well. Warhol uses a photographic image that repeats like a sheet of contact prints and is coloured like the cheapest colour reproduction in a Spanish-language American film magazine. The mechanically produced image of a beautiful woman, known to be dead, is contrasted with the handwritten annotations that deface the image of flesh, in Hamilton's My Marilyn.
There has been some doubt and discussion about the extent to which the Pop artist transforms his material. The first point to make is that selecting one thing rather than another is, as Marcel Duchamp established, enough. Beyond this, however, is the problem raised by Lichtenstein who used to say of his paintings derived from comics: "You never really take. Actually you are forming." He wanted to compose, not to narrate, but this is precisely what transformed his source. I showed early comic strip paintings by Lichtenstein to a group of professional comic strip artists who considered them very arty. They thought his work old-fashioned in its flatness. Lichtenstein was transforming after all, though to art critics who did not know what comics looked like, his work appeared at first as only copies. In fact, there was a surreptitious original in the simulated copy. Pop Art is an iconographical art, the sources of which persist through their transformation; there is an interplay of likeness and unlikeness. One way to describe the situation might be to borrow a word from the "military-industrial complex": commonality, which refers to equipment that can be used for different purposes. One piece of hardware is common to different operations-, similarly a sign or a set of signs can be common to both popular culture and Pop Art. The meaning of a sign is changed by being recontextualized by the artist, but it is not transformed in the sense of being corrected or improved or elaborated out of easy recognition.
The success of Pop Art was not due to any initial cordiality by art critics. 011 the contrary, art critics in the fifties were in general hostile, and they still are. One reason for this is worth recording because it is shared by Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, to name the supporters of irreconcilable earlier modernisms. Greenberg with his attachment to the pure colour surface and Rosenberg with his commitment to the process of art, are interested only in art's unique identity. They locate this at different points. Greenberg in the end product and Rosenberg in the process of work, but Pop Art is not predicated on this quest for uniqueness. On the contrary, Pop Art reveals constantly a belief in the translatability of the work of art. Pop Art proposes a field of exchangeable and repeatable imagery. It is true that every act of communication, including art, has an irreducible uniqueness; it is equally true, that a great deal of any message or structure is translatable and homeomorphic. Cross-media exchanges and the convergence of multiple channels is the area of Pop Art, in opposition to the pursuit of artistic purity.
Thus Pop Art is able to share, on the basis of translatability and commonality, themes from popular culture. An analogue of Pop Art's translatability is the saturation of popular culture with current heroes of consumption, such as the Beatles who are on records and record sleeves, movies, magazines of all kinds, radio, boutiques, who have been widely imitated, although in America a new generation of teeny boppers has already rejected them. Any event today has the potential of spreading through society on a multipliciry of levels, carried by a fat anthology of signs. It is impossible to go into the full extent of the connections between popular culture and Pop Art, but the extent of the situation can be indicated by a few representative cases. Robert Stanley's series of two-tone, black on white, paintings of trees had not been exhibited or written about in art journals when they were featured in Cheetah, a smart American teenage magazine. Lichtenstein made a cover for Newsweek when the magazine ran a Pop Art survey two years ago and Robert Rauschenberg silk-screened a cover for Time on the occasion of a story on Bonnie and Clyde. Here, artists who draw on the field of mass communications are themselves contributing to it. Some of the best photographs of Edward Kienholz's environmental sculptures appeared in a girlie magazine Night and Day and the Sergeant Pepper disc of the Beatles has an elaborate Peter Blake sleeve (the next one is by Richard Hamilton). As art is reproduced in this way it becomes itself pop culture, just as Van Gogh and Picasso, through endless reproduction, have become mass-produced items of popular culture. Van Gogh would have welcomed it because he had the greatest respect for cliches, which he regarded as the authorized expression of mankind, a kind of common property that especially binds us together.
Although the cliché is one of the most powerful resources of pop culture, and although we all consume popular culture in one form or another, there are obstacles to its appreciation. Its pervasiveness has caused it to be taken for granted and all consumers of pop culture are rather specialized. Agatha Christie readers (yes, her books are still in print) are not Ian Fleming's readers who, probably, put down Donald Hamilton (be writes the Matt Helm spy stories), whose readers, in their turn, could not possibly stand the tranquility of Agatha Christie, and so on. However, it is necessary to take one area of pop culture away from its specialists to indicate something of its possible sophistication. The reason for choosing comic books is that the genre is in a flourishing state at present, though the fact has not become a part of general knowledge yet.
In the United States there has been a revival of the costume comic (such heroes as Batman and Superman), with story lines frequently derived from the paranoid science fiction of pulp magazines of the forties, but updated in a bright baroque style, knowing and confident. There was a time-lag before Mod fashions were accepted in the comics, just as in the movies, but now the traditional story lines run like secret rivers through a hip mise-en-scéne. (Wonder Woman, for example, has just got a nineteen-sixties body and costume, in place of her nineteen-forties model, which looked as if it would stay forever without becoming classic.) In the forties, comic books were sexy but after the Korean war they were cleaned up, though sex heroines may reappear at any minute among the multilevelled displays of words and images. Italian comic books, the fumetti, aimed at adults, are openly sadistic and sexual but have a far less complex narrative style than American comics aimed at teeny hoppers and teenagers. The fumetti proceed in a stately and explicit narrative, whereas American comics are intricately structured. A high level of decoding skill is required of the reader-viewer. The best parodies of comics are found in other comics, not only in the celebrated Mad but in comic books like Ecch, the brawling comedy of which is close to the vernacular style of a group of Chicago painters, The Hairy Who. They produce their own comic books, following the layouts of straight comics but swelling into a Rabelaisian inflation of Americana. These random notes make the point, I hope, that the maze of signs in Pop Art is not only the product of artists' sophistication but is present, also, in their source material, which surrounds us, is underfoot.
In New York the first large paintings derived from comic strips were by Andy Warhol in 1960, such as his Dick Tracy. The following year Lichtenstein made his first painting of this type, a scene of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. Though actually taken from a bubble gum wrapper the style of drawing and the kind of incident resemble comic strips based on Walt Disney's film cartoon characters. Previously Lichtenstein had done Cubist versions of nineteenth-century cowboy paintings and of World War I dog-fights, "the Hell's Angels kind of thing," to quote the painter. The contrast of popular subjects (cowboys and Indians, old planes) and their Picasso-esque treatment is certainly proto-Pop. Lichtenstein did not know Warhol's slightly earlier work and was, as I hope this indicates, on a track that led logically to the comics. Early Pop Art, in fact, is peppered with convergences of separate artists on shared subjects. The fact of simultaneous discovery is, I think, a validation of the seriousness of the movement and refutes criticism of Pop Art as a sudden or momentary affair. It would not have developed spontaneously in different places in the fifties, had it not been an authentic response to an historical situation.
The different uses that have been made of comics substantiate the continued independence of the artists after they had become aware of their common interest. Lichtenstein has never used famous figures of the comics, as Warhol took Dick Tracy or Mel Ramos took Batman. His paintings derive from specific originals, but the reference is always to realistic and anonymous originals. He uses war comics and love comics in preference to named heroes or fantastic comics. Ramos, on the contrary, began a series of Batman paintings in 11962, taken directly from Bob Kane's originals (and other artists who draw Batman) but rendered in succulent paint. Ramos then switched to painting sex heroines from precode comics and here became engaged in historical research in erotic iconography. (Mysta of the moon; Glory Forbes, Vigilante; Gale Allen, Girl squadron leader; Futura, are some of the names.) Then, in the June 1966 Batman: "At the Gotham City Museum, Bruce Wayne, Millionaire Sportsman and Playboy (Batman), and his young ward Dick Grayson (Robin), attend a sensational 'Pop' art show." On the walls are full-length, fine art portraits that resemble the paintings of Mel Ramos. Here is a feedback circuit that goes from comics to artist and back to comics.
Linkages between art and pop culture and between one part of pop culture and another are not confined to the comics. In fashion, for example, Yves St Laurent discovered Mondrian through an art book his mother gave him and Courreges' earlier designs had a science fiction potential realized in the movie The 10th Victim and in Harpers Bazaar photographs. Harpers' space phase influenced two Argentine painters, Delia Cancela and Pablo Mesejean, who built an environment of astronauts and bouquets.
A unifying thread in recent art, present in Pop Art, can be described as process abbreviation. In the past an ambitious painting required a series of steps by the artist, from a conceptual stage, though preliminary sketches to drawing, to underpainting, to glazing and, maybe, to varnishing. These discrete steps were not experienced in isolation by the artist, of course, but such basically was the sequence of his operations. In one way and another, modern art has abbreviated this process. For instance, Pop artists have used physical objects as part of their work or rendered familiar articles with a high degree of literalness. Though Lichtenstein works in stages himself, he simulates an all-at-once, mechanical look in his hand-done painting. The finished work of art is thus separated from traces of its long involvement in planning and realizing, at least in appearance and sometimes in fact. Warhol's silk screen paintings achieve a hand-done look from the haste and roughness with which the identical images are printed. Photographs, printed or stencilled in the work of art give the most literal definition available in flat signs to the artist. It was the same in the nineteenth century when the Daguerrotype was described as a means "by which objects maybe made to delineate themselves."
Where process abbreviation is found in Pop Art it reduces personal nuances of halldling by the artist in favour of deadpan or passive images. This deceptive impersonality amounts to a game with anonymity, a minimizing of invention, so that the work is free to support its interconnections with popular culture, and with the shared world of the spectator. Photographs appear as unmediated records of objects and events, as the real world's most iconic sign system. In addition to this property, which Rauschenberg and others have exploited, photographs have a materiality of their own, a kind of visual texture which is generated mechanically but which we read as the skin of reality, of selfdelineated rather than of interpreted objects. This zone of gritty immediacy, of artificial accuracies, has been explored by Pop artists as part of their attention to multi-levelled signs. In London the first number of First delved into the photographic-texture-as-truth paradox, following up Paolozzi's and Hamilton's photographic research in the fifties. The theme is still viable as is shown by a non-verbal, untitled, anonymous and handdistributed publication that has just started in New York; its best pictures are straight photographs, highly specific as to subject, but uninterpretable in the absence of cues. Such solidity and mystery, such as we would get if we turned out a stranger's pockets or ransacked an immigrant's only suitcase, is comparable to Pop Art's literalness of objects that resist interpretation.
Perhaps enough has been said to indicate that Pop Art is not the same as popular culture, though it draws from it, and the point may have been made that Pop Art is art. In the ten years since the term began to be used in London in 1957-8, its meaning has shifted in a way that indicates resistance to an anthropological definition of culture. As we saw, the term was, in the first place, part of an expansionist aesthetics, a way of relating art to the environment. In place of an hierarchic aesthetics keyed to define greatness, and to separate high from low art, a continuum was assumed which could accommodate all forms of art, permanent and expendable, personal and collective, autographic and anonymous. From about 1961 to 1964 Pop Art was narrowed to mean paintings that included a reference to a mass medium source. As the term became attached purely to art, its diffusion accelerated.
The Random House Dictionary defines Pop Art as follows:
A style esp. of figurative painting, developed in the US and current in the early
60s, characterized chiefly by magnified forms and images derived from such com-
mercial art genres as comic strips and advertising posters.
In 1965-6 the meaning of the term shifted again, away from the second phase of its use, which is what the dictionary recorded. It was returned to the continuous and non-exclusive culture which it was originally supposed to cover. The term leaked back to the environment, much as Allan Kaprow's term Happenings spread to apply to everything and anything. Both words were taken up by so many people and used so promiscuously that Pop Art was de-aestheticized and re-anthropologized. The dictionary I quoted stressed Pop Art's American-ness. It is true that English Pop artists used to be accused of pro-Americanism, but the nature of their interest can be defined more sharply than that. American pop culture was valued because it was the product of an economy more fully industrialized than Europe's. We looked at the United States as our expected future form, the country at a level of industrialism to which all countries were headed, though at various speeds. This outlook had a mood of optimism that is not in accord with present feelings, but the point remains that Pop Art is the art of industrialism and not of America as such. It is the maximum development of its communications and the proliferation of messages that give America its centrality in pop culture. Its dominance in Pop Art is something else and here we must concede the responsibility is in ourselves.
Pop Art developed independently in England and in America or, more accurately, in London and New York, and its name is British in origin. The artists who contributed to its development in England, Paolozzi and Hamilton especially, are still going strong, working in forms that are cogent extrapolations of their early ideas. They have, however, less company than they had a few years back. A second generation of Pop artists and Popaffiliated artists came on the scene with the sixties and the best of this group are clearly Richard Smith, Peter Phillips and Peter Blake. English pop culture has prospered (music and clothes) but English Pop Art has not. The painters, aside from the exceptions noted, have not been able to take advantage of getting, for once, an early start. New York, on the other hand, which seemed a bit slow to me compared to London at first, has produced a vast body of work, and so have Los Angeles and Chicago. The reason for the disappointing record in England may, perhaps, be found in the particular character of artists as a group in London.
Here there is almost no professionalism among the artists, by which I mean a level of interpersonal contact which is sustained and open to newcomers. In London no artist seems to know enough other artists; there will be a few others, of his own generation probably, and some of these will probably teach in the same art school with him. The art scene is broken into small groups who have only occasional and suspicious contact with each other. An artist's best audience is other artists who know, from the inside, what he is doing while it is new, and this is the best function of the professional art world in New York. In London, on the other hand, artists work with an audience that is usually too small and either too friendly or too hostile to provide coherent reactions to current work. One needs more than friends and rivals.
What has happened since the late nineteenth century is that many English artists have been terribly short-winded. It is not that they are not talented or intelligent; the trouble is that most are not tough enough to go it alone. The typical pattern for an English artist is early energy followed by prolonged and obscure frustration or by sustained energy but at an idiosyncratic or complacent level. It is the fault of the English artist as audience (its failure to provide feedback) that most of the younger English Pop artists have already disappointed. It seems that they are going the way of the neo-romantic artists of World War II, or of Paul and John Nash, or of Wilson Steer, etc.
Studio International, July-August 1969: 17-21